Kolisi's triumph a fitting finale to six compelling weeks
YOKOHAMA, 3 Nov - This most wonderful of all Rugby World Cups demanded the most fitting finale. It merited one last glorious dollop of high drama after six weeks of unrelenting, dizzying entertainment. And it needed one more wholly inspiring storyline to sit alongside all those other glorious tales that had made this Japanese odyssey so utterly compelling.
So it was that when Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis Cup to the Yokohama night sky, surrounded by his wonderful troops in green after they had not just beaten England but delivered perhaps the most complete performance by any side to dominate a final, we had the exclamation mark that Rugby World Cup 2019 truly deserved.
Twenty-four years since Francois Pienaar had first lifted the trophy after the Mandela final, the moment that signalled the birth of South Africa’s Rainbow Nation, the old No.6 was up on his feet in the stands of the International Stadium. He cheered as he watched the latest captain, a black boy born just one day before the repeal of apartheid, stand proudly as an inspiring new symbol of South African unity.
"We have so many problems in our country, a team like this - we come from different backgrounds, different races - came together with one goal. I really hope we have done that for South Africa, to show that we can pull together if we want to achieve something,” said Kolisi in an eloquent post-match address on the pitch.
"Since I have been alive I have never seen South Africa like this. With all the challenges we have, our coach (Rassie Erasmus) said to us that we are not playing for ourselves any more, we are playing for the people back home - that is what we wanted to do today.
"We appreciate all the support - people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas. Thank you so much, we appreciate the support. We love you South Africa and we can achieve anything if we work together as one.”
It was a perfect message, a moment of high emotion for a nation where so many invest their heart and soul in rugby.
In 2007, Kolisi had had to watch on TV in a township tavern in the Eastern Cape as South Africa beat England in the Paris final because he had no television at home. "There was a stage when Siya didn’t have food to eat and, yes, that is the captain who led South Africa to hold this Cup. That is what Siya is,” Erasmus reminded us.
Here he was now, on his 50th appearance, leading from the front, making 10 perfect tackles and galvanising those tireless men around him to write their own lore with a performance of power and precision.
Men like his match-winner Makazole Mapimpi, a dazzling winger who scorched to the try that finally shattered England’s resistance. Here is a man who everyone in his side knows has suffered so much pain, paying tribute to his friend, University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was murdered recently.
Mapimpi’s mother, Eunice, died in a car accident, his sister passed away too from illness while his brother, Zolani, lost a leg after being electrocuted and he, too, died. In a way, these Springboks, all so close, must have felt like his new family.
Then there was little Cheslin Kolbe, one of the smallest players in the tournament who showed again, just as Japan’s Brave Blossoms had done, why rugby is not just a game for giants. With his Riverdance feet, he scuttled through Owen Farrell for another try that identified why these Springboks were not just about muscle and might; they had their touch of stardust too.
Certainly, there have been so many striking performers in this tournament. From the seemingly unstoppable Fijian winger Semi Radradra to his 'flying doctor' Japanese equivalent Kenki Fukuoka, below; from the diminutive, such as Kolbe and his buzzsaw scrum-half mate Faf de Klerk, to the colossal like Saturday's indestructible Player of the Match, Duane Vermeulen, a giant reduced to tears of emotion.
Yet here the stage had been set for one more hero to emerge and seize the day, to boot himself into legend as the Jonny Wilkinson, Joel Stransky or Stephen Donald of this 2019 edition. Handre Pollard was that man. Only three years ago, he was close to having his arm amputated after surgery to his injured shoulder left him dangerously ill with an infection in hospital. Now he was magnificent, England’s executioner who took advantage of his forwards’ dominant physicality that simply wore down and suffocated the life out of Eddie Jones’s men.
What an epic, crunching finale to a tournament that, having been transported to Asia for the first time, won over so many new converts to the great game.
Of course, it was English white and South African green that dominated the Yokohama landscape, but the legion of cherry and white shirts in evidence all around the stadium was proof enough of how Japan’s Brave Blossoms had instilled themselves in the consciousness of a nation.
Back in September, rugby still felt so much like an afterthought here but after the heroics of Jamie Joseph’s thrilling team, it feels as if the sport has become embedded.
Rugby is now super cool. You want one of those must-have shirts? Good luck with that. Those wondrous triumphs by Michael Leitch and Co over Ireland and Scotland were up there with the greatest matches ever seen. Everyone was won over, not just by the host team becoming dynamic studies in perpetual motion but also by the host nation’s gracious hospitality and enthusiasm amid what was to prove such a tragic, trying period for Japan when Typhoon Hagibis wrought such destruction.
Even on this final night, there was the most perfectly observed silence once again in the stadium. Nobody at this World Cup forgot that it is only a game, even when it is played with the sort of commitment witnessed on Saturday that makes it seem like life or death to those players out there.
It brought memories of how the Canada players helped in the clean-up and recovery operation in Kamaishi, above, after the typhoon when their own match was cancelled. Nothing seemed to sum up the spirit of RWC 2019 better.
"From full stadia, to packed Fanzones and welcoming host cities, everyone will play their part in rugby’s greatest celebration,” Sir Bill Beaumont, World Rugby Chairman, had suggested. It was no empty promise.
There was an interaction between teams and the local communities here that were heartwarming to behold, such as the day Alun Wyn Jones and his men were serenaded by 15,000 voices all singing Calon Lan, the Welsh rugby hymn. Remarkably, that all unfolded at a training session.
Every player felt and appreciated the warmth. "Arigato gozaimasu!" the wonderful Kolisi told the Japan crowd. Thank you, Japan. It was a sentiment all of rugby, and all of sport could share.